What is a Fairy Tale?

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    How do we define a genre of literature? How do we draw boundaries, within which a story is a fairy tale and without which it is not? It seems especially appropriate to begin with a checklist, one derived from Bettelheimís study:

    1. Is the main character an ordinary person?

    2. Does the story present the child with an existential predicament?

    3. Does the story tacitly mimic subconscious processes?

    4. Does the story have a happy ending?

    5. Do the characters in the story have magical helpers?

    6. Does the story mimic a rite of passage?

The checklist is a Rationalist tool and we may well wonder whether it has any proper place in what is essentially a Romantic exercise. The question is especially relevant in light of the statements in the Prologue to the effect that fairy tales should not be the subjects of rational analysis. But those statements only apply to analyzing the fairy tale for children. As adults we should not only be able to endure such analysis, but even benefit from the understanding that it gives us.

    In the section "Fairy Tale versus Myth" Bettelheim contrasts the two basic varieties of wonder tale, noting that one of the primary differences between them is that the outlook of myths tends to be pessimistic and that of fairy tales tends to be optimistic. However, they begin from common roots: the anthropologist Mircea Eliade hypothesized that they originated in initiation rites or other rites of passage. Such rites act out metaphoric dramas like the death of an old, inadequate self to make way for the rebirth of the self on a higher plane of existence. (The idea of "born again" is not a Christian invention.) These rites provide models of human behavior that, by virtue of that very fact, give meaning and value to life. By rehearsing the renewal of the self in fantasy we guide the actual renewal of ourselves as we grow up.

    Myths and fairy tales also mimic the dream state. They are not constrained to follow the logic of the real world. But what can we usefully say about the dream state? Consider the little gingerbread house that Hansel and Gretel find in the forest. Why didnít it dissolve into mush in the first rainstorm? Nobody asks, because to ask such a question would interrupt the dream-like state of the story. (OK, itís magical waterproof gingerbread).

    But from those similarities the two kinds of story diverge. Basically, the myth conveys pessimism about the world and the fairy tale conveys optimism. The endings of myths are almost always tragic (think of the myths of Prometheus, of Oedipus, etc.) and the endings of fairy tales are uniformly happy. Further, the myth tells of a unique event that could not have happened to a mere mortal like one of us. The event is grandiose and awe-inspiring in its miraculous power, which is why the protagonists are often divine or semi-divine beings (Gilgamesh, for example, is only one-third human; his mother was a goddess). The fairy tale, in contrast, is downright mundane, in spite of its magical and improbable content: it is something that could conceivably happen to any of us on a walk in the woods. "Even the most remarkable encounters are related in casual, everyday ways in fairy tales," Bettelheim tells us. The surly myth seems to discourage any vicarious participation in the story while the friendly fairy tale offers a warm welcome to the listener to enter its world of make-believe.

    In psychodynamical terms, the myth represents the superego in conflict with both the id and the ego. Represented in the story by the Gods, the superego presents demands that the id and the ego working together (and all too often they donít work together) could not hope to satisfy. Mere mortals are too frail to meet the challenges of the Gods, so they are destroyed, even though they have done nothing wrong.

    Bettelheim presents the myth of Oedipus as the exemplar here. The Godsí demand is encoded in the prophecy that Oedipus will kill his father and marry his mother; that is, it presents the incest taboo as divine command that no human can fulfill. Of course, the taboo exists precisely because there is an urge that must be countered for the sake of good, decent society. In the present example itís the urge that appears in the title of an old song, "I Want a Girl Just Like the Girl Who Married Dear Old Dad." The taboo is emphasized in the myth precisely by Oedipusí violating it, unknowingly, and suffering horrible punishment as a consequence (the Greeks took the notion of "ignorance of the law is no excuse for violating it" to something of an extreme).

    This is all well and good for adults, Bettelheim says, but for children under the age of puberty it is not a good thing. Children do not need the catharsis that Aristotle claimed that tragedy provides us. The child is still caught up in the process of becoming fully human and needs reassurance that he will complete that process successfully. "The fairy tale offers fantasy materials which suggest to the child in symbolic form what the battle to achieve self-realization is all about, and it guarantees a happy ending." Thus the child gains the inner security that a positive outcome follows any difficult psychological struggle, however remote that possibility is in Reality.

    Myths offer images for the development of the superego, but lest we be overwhelmed by the emotional demands of that moral distillate, myths also distance themselves from us. The mythical heroes are superhuman and face superhuman challenges, so we are absolved of any requirement (tacitly implied in the telling of the story) that we emulate the hero in any direct way. Further, the myths are unique in that the characters all have specific names and the stories occur in specific places at specific times in the remote past.

    Fairy tales, on the other hand, are concerned with conflicts between the developing id and ego and offer friendly solutions to those conflicts. They invite us to identify with the characters by making the characters ordinary people doing relatively mundane things, regardless of the magic that flows in and out of their stories. Unlike the myths, fairy tales are timeless and placeless: they occur everywhere and nowhere. True, many characters have idiosyncratic names (e.g. Hansel and Gretel, although those are relatively common names in Germany, whence the tale comes.), but we still identify with them because they remind us of ourselves. And while the stories have settings that are often identifiable, they could just as easily have occurred somewhere else: Hansel and Gretel could just as easily encountered their witch in the steppes of Central Asia, in the jungles of Brazil, or in the sprawling suburbs of modern America as in the forests of late Medieval Germany.

    The mythsí implicit demands that we develop the ideal personality entirely in tune with the fully developed superego, demands that no human can hope to satisfy, accounts for the pessimism of mythology. Fairy talesí mediation of the conflict between the id and the ego, showing how they can work together to build a successful functioning personality, accounts for the optimism of these little wonder tales.

Appendix:

On the Evolution of the Human Mind

    In the 1980's William H. Calvin (1939 Apr 30 Ė ?) popularized his hypothesis that a protohuman penchant for throwing things led to the growth of the neocortex. Part of the evidence that he presents consists of the observation that many sites in Africa and the Middle East contain what he calls "killer frisbees". I have one of his "killer frisbees", which I picked up in the Negev outside Beersheba in February 1972: itís simply a rounded cobble that has had three chunks whacked off to give it a point. The books call it a Neolithic knife, but it seems ill-suited to cutting anything. It does, however, feel eminently throwable.

    In Calvinís hypothesis the tendency of apes to throw things, however imperfectly, at enemies gave them a survival advantage in their world. That advantage, resulting in more surviving offspring, promoted any mutation that made throwing more accurate. Accuracy of throwing depends upon timing, knowing when to release the missile to send it on its way to the target. And the piece of anatomy responsible for timing the extension of the muscles used in throwing is the brain; thus, any mutation that makes the brain bigger and more complex would be promoted by natural selection. The most accurate throwers would reproduce more efficiently, because they could better protect their families from predators and could more readily provide meat for them. Over hundreds of millenia humans evolved the large neocortex that we have today.

    Those killer frisbees that Calvin mentions were part of that process of evolving the neocortex. Found largely near waterholes, they werenít used to kill animals directly. Instead, according to Calvinís hypothesis, protohuman hunters threw them into herds gathered at the waterhole to make the herds stampede while the animals that actually got hit crouched down (due to an instinct that would free them from getting snagged on low-hanging tree branches) and got trampled to death. For hundreds of thousands of years these dramas played out, with the best throwers becoming the sports stars of their time and getting all of the rewards attending that status.

    Improved timing in the firing of nerve impulses gave us more than the ability to throw accurately: it also gave us the ability to distinguish more complex sounds. Music is a reflection of our timing ability. The historian Stillman Drake even suspects that Galileo devised his law of accelerated motion from experiments in which he timed the motions of balls rolling down inclined planks by singing to them. Coming from a family of musicians and having been trained as a musician himself, Galileo could, just by singing, divide time accurately enough to get the results that began the development of modern physics.

    Improved timing gives us more than music. It enables us to distinguish more complex sounds. It gives us more complex language and, as an emergent property, abstract thought; thus, it brings about our sentience. All of that comes from the enlargement of the neocortex. The neocortex, then, is presumably what the fairy tale is aimed at developing, not so much by programming it as by exercising it.

    A study of depression has shown how the prefrontal cortex moderates emotions. Anticipation, thinking ahead, is an important part of human behavior because we donít have the instincts that guide other animals. The right cortex "governs a physiological loop that produces negative, inhibiting feelings, while the left commands a loop for positive, outward-reaching emotions." A personís natural temperament is determined by which side is dominant. "Emotion is the glue that holds a personality together." The neocortex moderates the responses of the limbic system, especially the amygdala, the generator of fear. Stress can damp the left and overgrow the right: the worst stress comes from being neglected, isolated, ostracized by peers, deprived of love, comfort, and security. Therapy aimed at stimulating the left seems to relieve depression; electrical stimulation of the nerves by applying vibrating magnetic fields is one such therapy. "The left cortex also produces good feelings when a person sets goals and attains them." Fairy tales also work as therapy: Bettelheim got good results with disturbed children.

    Reference for the above paragraph: Robbins, Jim, "Wired for Sadness", Discover, Volume 21, Number 4, April 2000, Pgs 76-81.

    We might also note the story of Phineas Gage, a railroad worker who had an iron tamping rod blasted through his head when a charge of black powder deflagrated prematurely. About 4:30 in the afternoon of 1848 Sep 13, near the town of Cavendish, Vermont, Gage was supervising a work gang preparing the roadbed for the Rutland & Burlington Railroad. The crew had drilled a hole into the rock that was to be blasted and the procedure then involved putting blasting powder, a fuse, and sand into the hole and tamping it down with a long iron rod. In this instance, apparently, the person responsible for adding the sand got distracted and failed to put that layer into the hole. When Gage rammed the tamping iron into the hole it struck a spark off the rock and set off the powder prematurely. Blasted out of the hole like an artillery shell, the rod entered the left side of Gageís face, passed behind his left eye, and came out the top of his head and it still had enough momentum to carry it eighty feet away from the blast site. That Gage survived at all was something of a miracle.

    As a consequence of the destruction of his brainís frontal lobes he became impulsive, vulgar, and belligerent, though not to the extent that some people claimed (in the remaining twelve years of his life he was able to hold a job and to tend to his family); his id-impulses ran partly unchecked by the moral intelligence of the ego. People who had known him said that he simply wasnít Gage anymore. Thus we see again the importance of the neocortex, particularly its frontal lobes, in the existence of the human mind.

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